Vital Relations: Couples and Colleagues

This title may prompt thoughts about life-work balance. And some, tiring of the same old debates on this subject, will say, “Get over it! There is no such thing.” Not to worry, we’ll be setting that quarrel aside. Rather, we’re going to consider some vital, normative life-work connections.

Boundaries

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For many of us it seems best to keep work and life outside of work separated by a clear boundary. This boundary is defined in part by distinct personal priorities. We take both domains seriously and consider what we owe to others in both parts of life. The cross-cutting themes and connecting tissues that make common claims upon us are relational and moral, for what we owe consists of an ethic of care. 

Viewed this way, we can find advantages to the separation and interconnection of life spheres. Stepping away from situations and then returning after some interval and change of scene can refresh our ways of seeing things. It’s called an incubation effect because in the transitional time and space between roles and places new perspectives and possibilities are born – particularly helpful in problem solving. 

However, there is also a continuity of responsibilities of care. We are one and the same person who hears and relates to others, who finds ourself in quarrels that strain relationships. In both interpersonal arenas our ways of attending, responding, and communicating help to repair strained relations. And in both trust, empathy, and a willingness to bear the tension of working through difference is essential. 

Integration

There is a fortunate convergence of mature forces that we experience when our exercise of work and nonwork roles and relationships are grounded in the ethic of care. It is all the easier to leave others feeling heard and respected, which relieves them of the felt necessity to raise their voice or marshal aggressive energies to be recognized and make their point. 

In both domains of life there are times when we must persevere and “bite our tongue.” Emotional self-management skills grow all the faster. Skills of attending and noticing spikes in reactive emotion in self or others grow in ease and competence. And perhaps most important of all the gains, we become more integrated human beings. And that conveys authenticity to others. 

Take a Moment to Reflect

I encourage you to consider this brief reflection on relationships. How are they working for you, at home, with significant others? And how are they working with colleagues at work? What do you struggle with at home and at work? What have you learned about working through difficult issues and repairing strains? Are you more or differently attentive to the ethic of care at work or at home? 

Our lives can feel so rushed, at times so chaotic and without boundaries. And in a disordered life it’s harder to realize an ethic of care. Of course, we’ll never live this ethic perfectly. The key is to gain an awareness of growing strain and disorder, not to judge ourselves harshly for our imperfections. For then, we can use this awareness as a call to pause, breathe, knowing we can always begin again. 

Rotations and Stretch Assignments

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Rotations are used in medicine (physician training) and in business (management training). We may think of them as predetermined periods of time during which someone is assigned a role in a functional area for purposes of learning and perspective. After a rotation, they have a more concrete sense of what that area is about and how it connects and contributes to a larger system of operation. 

Although larger organizations still use a rotation strategy for training, with the flattening and leaning of organizations in the 21st century, it’s become less common especially in small and medium sized firms. It’s been replaced by stretch assignments, i.e., when talented performers are moved from one area to another, or when a new hire is selected based on their “raw potential” despite relevant experience. 

But these bet-on-the-come strategies are less intentional and seldom serve the developmental purpose that rotational experiences were designed to address: A talented HR leader is assigned to Marketing to do analytical work that was quite similar technically to what he had done in HR. A strategy consultant is hired as an executive director to lead a turnaround in a not-for-profit organization. 

In both cases there was neither a predetermined duration, nor was attention given to supporting the candidate’s need to learn and adaptively develop in the role. So, the HR leader struggled and failed over the course of a year. The strategy consultant succeeded in achieving key milestones, but she burned out and had to leave the position due to the wear and tear of chronic stress and strain after two years.     

Who Failed and Why?

Having worked with both, but only after it was too late, I can tell you that neither of these individuals were the cause of failure. But both felt like failures. And it was management in both cases who suffered the greatest failure – they failed to learn from their experience. Maybe at some level they knew they had “blown” it. If so, it was not reflected in the way they handled things. 

I was called in as damage control by management in the first case, and by the executive director herself (at her spouse’s prompting) in the other case. And I think it was important that someone like me was brought. I only wish that I had been brought in before the assignment was made, so that could have helped avert an unnecessary experience of failure. 

Both individuals had most of the technical skills that were needed for their new roles. Both were bright, hard-working, and highly motivated to succeed. But in the case of the HR leader, he went through three different executive-level supervisors in 18 months. Highly visible issues were at stake in Marketing, and he encountered a radically different and highly political subculture. He didn’t have a chance. 

The not-for-profit turnaround situation called for creative thinking, effective analysis, and board-level communications, all of which the strategy consultant had. However, the role also entailed many hands-on, operational tasks with little support, which did not play to the executive director’s strength. Indeed, it wore her out – it was a turnaround-plus job. She hadn’t expected that. 

Unnecessary Harm and Recovery

Achievement-oriented professionals take their work seriously. They identify with the role and measure themselves by their impact and success. The healthier their ego, the less likely they are to blame others and make excuses for their struggles. They’re more apt to conclude that it’s about something lacking in them, that they’re not as good as they thought they were! 

Unravelling this harsh narrative of self-evaluation is difficult. And it’s painful, often producing depression and eroding self-confidence. That’s why, when you are about to hire or redeploy a very talented person, it’s foolish not to ensure that you are doing what you can to optimize their chances for success. In some cases, this consultation may cause management to recognize the risks and decide differently. 

But if management proceeds with the hiring or the deployment of in-house talent to such a stretch assignment, now they do it eyes open: “Is there room for adaptive learning, or is the assignment to urgent, failure too costly? What are the technical and non-technical requirements of the role, and how ready is the candidate to meet those requirements on day one? What support resources are needed?” 

Sounds simple, even obvious? Then why is it that these considerations are so frequently overlooked? It’s the same reason so many mergers and change initiatives fail? The results we want can cause us to push aside the inconvenient complexities of what’s really involved realizing those results, many of which don’t appear in a spreadsheet analysis or rational business-case argument for investment. 

Pay a Little Now or Pay Much More Later

It’s people who get things done. Every instance of human performance is “situated.” Success here does not equate to success there. Visible aspects of the role often overshadow other less visible but equally vital demands for the new leader. We are inclined to underestimate the time, resource requirements, and costs of achieving results. 

Management often inadvertently contributes to these errors in appraisal and planning by their belt-tightening insistence: “Go do it again. It’s your job to deliver a plan that affordable!” So be careful what you wish for. And make sure you give your most talented people the breathing space to learn, adapt, and thrive – they’re smart and motivated, they’ll use it wisely!

Not Needing vs. Not Knowing

There is a conceit that does more than any external adversity to block learning and growth. It’s the need to seem that we are in-the-know, to have the answers, and to not need the perspective, insights, or help of others. The opposite of this attitude and state of mind is a willingness to not know, to be curious and open to discovery.

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This conceit works differently than the ordinary self-limiting effects of assumptions and habits that we discover in the course of life. Naturally, we approach situations and problem solving in everyday life with certain beliefs and assumptions. Without relying on them we would be left to reinvent a solution for every problem we encounter – a very inefficient way to function.

The conceit appears when we deny indications that our assumptions, beliefs, and current understandings are inadequate to the challenge at hand. We’re unable to acknowledge our limitations or to express a normal, adaptive curiosity about how to move beyond them. For some reason, admitting our need to know more and our lack of knowledge feels threatening.

What energizes this maladaptive response is fear and insecurity. It signals more than the realization that our current approach to a new role or challenge is inadequate; it implies (or so it seems to us) that we are inadequate. And when it’s the adequacy of our person that is at stake our fears are much more intense, our reactions much more defensive.

As a dispassionate observer, it’s easy to criticize these reactions: “Wow, why is he so defensive?” But what if we, immediately upon witnessing such a reaction, instead asked “I wonder what it is about this situation that causes him to feel threatened?” Soon, we might recognize the role that social comparison and the evaluation of others play in these reactions.

On the one hand, we prize competition as a stimulus to learning and innovation. On the other hand, it’s clear that competition and winning and losing can evoke acute anxiety, especially when what we it's our personal value or worth that's being appraised. When the stakes are high, and when levels of stress, strain, and fatigue are also rising, it can feel very personal.

For some of us who had a less affirming experience in early childhood, which left us with lingering feelings of self-doubt, we may be more vulnerable to exaggerating what’s at stake. And when such feelings have plagued us since childhood, they can seem even more real and warranted than they truly are. But that too can change with help if we are willing to face these fears.

There are few more fundamental truths about human existence than these. There is a lightness about not knowing and a burdensome weight of needing to be in-the-know. Stuck once, try again. Stuck again, try again more attentively. Still stuck, it’s probably time to welcome an attitude of not knowing and open the door to deeper, adaptive learning. 

Exhausted from trying too hard?

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Ceaseless striving is a sign that we've lost perspective. It's marked by growing fatigue. And regaining perspective frees us from this exhausting state. We acquire a considered view of life, our situation, and the surrounding world. No longer swallowed up in frantic activity, we recognize that we've lost our bearings.

In this light, perspective-taking merits the status of a vital practice in life. But to maximize its effects, it should be a mindful perspective-taking. That implies holding our experience in balanced awareness, neither pushing it away nor clutching it too closely. Either of those mind states remain too much in the grip our striving mind.

Having observed this, let's acknowledge that the idea is beautifully simple in concept, but often so much more difficult in practice. The mind of an achievement-oriented person is a particularly busy and distracting source of desires, impulses, and ruminations. So mindful perspective-taking will always only occur with deliberate intent and practice.

Exhaustion: A 2 X 4 for the Professional

As with many practical virtues, the achievement drive has a dark side. We can over-learn goal-directedness, forward thinking, and a never-give-up work ethic. They're adaptive and serve developmental purposes up to a point. So, they can become ingrained in our habits of thought, feeling, and action. And we must then learn to notice when this drive runs amok.

That's where exhaustion becomes our friend. It alerts us to an approaching inflection point. Even before it becomes exhaustion, growing levels of stress, strain, and fatigue register as warning signs if we pause to notice them. If we "heroically" minimize or deny them, we may just drive right over the cliff. It's the storied hubris of tragic endings - a lack of humility.

But you don't need to do it all yourself. In fact, others often notice the signs before you do. Your spouse, partner, co-workers witness the "decompensating" effects of stress, strain, and fatigue that result from a protracted period of ceaseless striving. So, we must learn to listen, to tap into their observations with curiosity and patience, formally and informally.

But no matter how smart and accomplished we are, there are times when it seems that all that will get our attention is the proverbial 2 X 4-in-the-head experience. A conspicuous failure or an embarrassing experience of overreacting - that's learning the hard way. It's not what I would wish for anyone, but it is survivable. And it's also avoidable.

From Afflictive to Skillful Emotion

Afflictive emotions are those that "have us." Skillful emotions are those that "we have." The former are intense enough to overwhelm our capacity for seeing things as they are and might be. They underlie and energize the drive run amok. And the way they are disarmed is not by avoiding, denying, or minimizing them, but by seeing and exploring them.

We do that by processing them and noticing that it is our relationship to them that is toxic and self-limiting. We are feeling breathless, embattled, afraid. So stop, breathe, lay down your arms. You will see that your enemy's posture, size, and proximity change too. You can unilaterally effect a moment of peace. Now, start afresh, reappraise the situation.

It may be possible to do this on your own, but if you're feeling "real" stuck, and if the history and habits are longer and run deeper, it may be helpful to do this in dialogue with a professional. Give yourself the care and attention you might usually reserve for those you most love and care about. Let others be there with you and for you.

If exhaustion brings you to this point, it truly is your friend.

 

From Seeing to Doing

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Seeing is often used as a metaphor for understanding things, and for seeing the purpose and means of instrumental action. It’s also used to signify insight into oneself (self-awareness) and discovering the unseen forces that can block our growth and development.

Observational Learning & Insight

We have all learned from watching others, our parents and teachers, and later, after entering the workforce, we learn from the modeling and mentoring of more experienced others. That’s what we might call observational learning, learning from seeing what others do, their overt, task-oriented execution of skilled actions.

But it’s a different matter to learn from the seeing which occurs through insight into our own mental, emotional, and behavioral tendencies. This insight is gleaned in conversation, moments of private reflection, and especially in developmental dialogue with a professional helper. It may arise from our joint interpretation of assessment results in a coaching relationship.

This latter form of seeing is often more difficult to translate into action. Insight consists of a significant emotional experience – the wow factor – as well as a rational-semantic translation of this felt wow into conceptual understanding, which registers as important and practically relevant. Translating this seeing into doing implies change. It’s a process, not a moment.

The Depth of Change

Many kinds of skilled action acquired through observational learning lay just below the surface, less embedded in deeper structures of self, identity, and values. They concern matters of efficiency and effectiveness in execution. They seldom challenge the imperatives and “oughts” we acquired very early in life. We let go of these old ways and acquire new ones with greater ease.

And as these overt actions yield improvement, they are quickly reinforced. But it’s different with basic personality tendencies and the motivations that drive us to compensate for long-standing fears and/or feelings of inadequacy. Even with a positive sense of self, there may be interpersonal tendencies that hinder our readiness to handle conflict or express warmth.

But the deeper structures are not fixed in concrete. They are malleable, but loosening the grip of habits and the anxiety of letting them go doesn’t happen so quickly. It’s because they felt so necessary for so long to our safety, success, and acceptance by others. We form beliefs about these tendencies. Their felt truth and validity carry more consequential implications.

Each of these beliefs – e.g., that conflict is dangerous, that it may risk alienating others, and that it must be avoided – is embedded in a larger network of beliefs: “Intelligent people are composed, reasonable. Expressing anger means I’m an out-of-control person. And if I challenge a person’s emotionally charged assertions, it will only escalate into angry emotions and bad things will happen.”  

Most of these beliefs that constrain our freedom of action and inhibit our readiness to experiment with new behaviors are not inherently false or invalid. But they were formulated in the all-or-none form that characterizes the mind of the child – because that’s when we learned them. The felt consequences of violating them seemed so harsh that we granted them unquestioned authority.

Such imperatives, which operate with the rigidity and force characteristic of fight-or-flight reactions, also operate unconsciously, automatically. So, we must raise awareness of them to weaken their grip on us. But we must also have good reason to alter these beliefs, and we must have the assurance that when we do so we will be safe and that they will prove helpful.

Increasing Our Self-Efficacy to Act

Creating that readiness to act, self- efficacy, is one of the most important aims of developmental coaching. It implies changes in our beliefs: 1) that there is a viable solution strategy; 2) that it has been shown to deliver results; 3) that it is something I can learn with help; and 4) that I can hone this skill by experimenting gradually, starting with low-risk situations before trying higher-risk situations.

Yes, we must deconstruct the issues and do a good deal of game-planning. But that’s what good coaching accomplishes. Whether it’s done one-on-one or in a team development mode, patient persistence is the key. The coachee/s, determine the pace. The coach prevents them from becoming complacent while recognizing and respecting your felt readiness.